Trekking the Grand Canyon: Two Backpacks, 650 Miles, and the Story of a Lifetime

The Grand Canyon provokes two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a whopping pile of money from it | Text by Kevin Fedarko, Photos by Pete McBride  
Grand Canyon
Former Grand Canyon ranger Amy Martin watches a winter sunrise over a section of the Colorado called Conquistador Aisle. No trails exist along 95 percent of the canyon’s North Rim or along 80 percent of its South Rim. Fewer people have now hiked the canyon’s length in a single trip (10) than have walked on the moon (12). Photo: Pete McBride

“If you break loose here, you can’t stop. You’re going into the abyss,” barks Rich Rudow. Normally he is unflappable, but as he knows too well, this is no place to let down one’s guard. We’re on a cliff roughly 3,500 feet above the Colorado River at the tip of the Great Thumb Mesa, a spectacular formation that thrusts out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon like the bow of an immense ship. It is one of the canyon’s most remote spots, rarely seen even by the most hard-core backpackers. If you come this far out on the Thumb, there is no way to get down to the river without climbing gear, and the dwindling food in your pack won’t allow you to make the eight-day trek back the way you came. You have to move forward.

Just ahead, the ledge that we’ve been walking on for the past several days vanishes into a deep indentation, or bay, in the wall of the canyon. This place is known as Owl Eyes, named for two enormous oval holes punched into the center of the cliff that looms over the middle of the bay. It’s a spooky place. Besides its ominous skull sockets, Owl Eyes is part of a tragic story. Nearly four years earlier, on a sunny February day, a beautiful young woman, a friend of Rudow’s, was crossing this passage when she fell to her death.

Now we’re staring across the same terrain, in far worse conditions. A storm had lumbered in the previous evening and coated the canyon in nine inches of snow. This is not what we’d imagined when we started this venture, an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon.

It isn’t a particularly sane thing to attempt. There is no single trail or network of trails that stretches along the entirety of the North or South Rims. The most efficient way to travel the length of the canyon is to float down the Colorado River, which winds through the canyon for 277 sinuous miles. That’s why John Wesley Powell—who led the first documented traverse of the canyon—did so by boat.

After Powell’s achievement in the summer of 1869, more than a century would pass before the first known traverse by foot. During that time the canyon progressed from a forest reserve to a national monument until finally taking its place as the crown jewel of the National Park System and arguably the most recognized and beloved landscape in America. It became a vacation destination for hundreds of millions of families, its image captured on innumerable postcards. Yet nobody figured out how to walk all the way through the thing until a 25-year-old river guide named Kenton Grua completed it in the winter of 1976, some 65 years after both the North and South Poles had finally been reached, and 23 years after Mount Everest was first summited.

Think about that for a moment—and consider what it says about how complicated and wild this place truly is.

Mathieu Brown (left), Kelly McGrath (center), and the author negotiate the Walter Powell Route to the South Rim. Photo: Pete McBride

Mathieu Brown (left), Kelly McGrath (center), and the author negotiate the Walter Powell Route to the South Rim. Photo: Pete McBride

No one is sure of the exact distance Grua covered, but thanks to the countless bays, he probably walked more than 700 miles during his 37-day thru-hike along the south side of the river from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs.

He never publicized his feat. But as word of what he’d done slowly spread, a new challenge opened up to a tiny community of extreme backpackers, including an electrical engineer from Phoenix named Rich Rudow. By the autumn of 2015, Rudow had completed hundreds of hikes and slot canyon explorations in the canyon and felt he was ready for his biggest challenge: a 57-day trek moving east to west across the canyon’s north side.

By the time Rudow and two companions were ready to launch—almost 40 years after Grua’s thru-hike—fewer than two dozen people had approximated his feat by stringing together a chain of separate hikes along the length of the canyon, known as a “sectional” thru-hike. The number of trekkers who had completed a “continuous” thru-hike in a single push was even smaller. Before 2015 more people had stood on the moon (12) than had completed a continuous thru-hike of the Grand Canyon (eight).

When photographer Pete McBride heard about Rudow’s plans, he called him and asked whether we could join his group. Pete and I had years of experience boating in the canyon, but we were woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. The only explanation for Rudow’s agreeing is that he was swayed by our primary reason for wanting to do it: to look into disturbing reports we’d been hearing about the canyon’s future, which included new tourist developments, increased helicopter flights, and a uranium mine.

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Since it entered the American consciousness, the Grand Canyon has provoked two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a whopping pile of money from it. During the years after the Powell expedition, miners rushed into the canyon to lay claims for copper, zinc, silver, and asbestos. During the 1880s one tycoon wanted to turn the bottom of the canyon into a railroad corridor to haul coal from Denver to California. (He drowned in the Colorado, along with two members of his survey expedition.) In the 1950s a mining company tried to get rich by building a giant cableway to move bat guano from a cave and sell it to rose gardeners; that didn’t last long. There was even a government plan to build a pair of giant hydroelectric dams in the heart of the canyon, a project that would have transformed large parts of the Colorado River into a series of reservoirs whose shorelines today would undoubtedly be clotted with houseboats and Jet Skis.

The successful campaign to stop those dams, spearheaded by the Sierra Club during the 1960s, established the idea that the Grand Canyon is inviolable. And yet Pete and I had heard about a range of new proposals—many of them driven by savvy entrepreneurs operating just outside the canyon’s boundaries in areas that were controlled not by the National Park Service but by the U.S. Forest Service or one of the five Native American tribes whose federally recognized reservations are located around the canyon. From every point of the compass, threats ranging from colossal tourist developments and unlimited helicopter tours to uranium mining were poised to spoil one of the world’s premier parks.

It seemed to Pete and me that the best way to understand what was really at stake was to follow Kenton Grua’s example and hike straight through the heart of it all.

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 “Dude, are you all right?” Pete murmurs, shaking me gently. “Wanna try and eat something before you totally pass out?”

It’s late September, the sun is about to set on our first day of walking, and I’m splayed across the narrow patch of dirt where we’re supposed to spend the night.

One of the many things that I hadn’t prepared for is that there’s nothing gradual about this initial stretch of the journey. The canyon sucker punches its challengers with some of the most punishing territory right out of the gate. Add to that our 50-pound packs and an early autumn heat wave that pushed temperatures to 110 degrees, which wrung every bit of moisture out of our bodies and had begun peeling away the soles of our hiking shoes.

By the next morning Pete felt even worse than me. He had muscle cramps so intense that when he removed his shirt, it looked as if a mouse had wriggled into his abdomen and was scurrying from his shoulders to his stomach and back, just beneath the skin.

On day six we acknowledged that we were in over our heads and bailed, leaving Rudow and his partners to continue. On the trek out, Pete was delirious and disoriented, and once back in Flagstaff, he was diagnosed with hyponatremia, a heat-induced imbalance of salts and minerals, which, left untreated, could result in death.

In late October, intimidated but not defeated, we descended back into the now much cooler canyon and resumed our journey at the milepost where we’d pulled out three weeks earlier. Over the next several days, we threaded a route along a dizzying set of limestone ledges that dropped almost a thousand feet straight down to the river. Near river mile marker 32, we could discern the shadowy portal of the cave where archaeologists have found artifacts of the ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited this landscape for more than 10,000 years, as well as the remains of Harrington’s mountain goat (Oreamnos harringtoni) and yesterday’s camel (Camelops hesternus), now extinct creatures that flourished until the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago.

A daily pattern emerged: Each morning we would stuff ourselves with oatmeal, then set out on a 12- to 14-mile slog that usually involved hauling our packs up as much as a thousand vertical feet, descending impossibly steep slopes, or pushing through thickets of thornbushes. This would go on until the sun began to set, at which point, battered, scratched, and bone-tired, we would boil water, wolf down some rehydrated dinner, then lie back and gaze at the night sky while listening to the words of Edward Abbey on an audiobook Pete had downloaded onto his phone.

The book was Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s homage to the country of the Grand Canyon’s sister parks, Canyonlands and Arches. Although I was usually too exhausted to stay awake for more than a few sentences, I often asked Pete to replay the part where Abbey warns readers not to jump into their cars next June and rush out, hoping to see some of the wonders he had attempted to evoke:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

Although that passage seemed to speak most directly to me in the moment, I always willed myself to stay awake for what followed:

In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.

Those words, which Abbey wrote in 1967, carried a disturbing prescience because the wilderness of Arches that he once reveled in is now overwhelmed by so many visitors—1.4 million in 2015—that the entrance to the park had to be closed intermittently on Memorial Day weekend last year. And due to a dam project, the wonders of Glen Canyon, said to rival the beauty of the Grand Canyon, now lie beneath the surface of a 186-mile-long reservoir named after John Wesley Powell.

As Pete and I were about to discover, changes that bear a disturbing resemblance to the forces that Abbey had warned against—growth, development, and the pursuit of money—are unfolding inside Grand Canyon.

Backcountry explorer Rich Rudow (at left) and the author eat dinner beside a spring in Olo Canyon, one of the Grand Canyon’s numerous tributaries. Similar oases could be damaged by proposed developments near the park, which, if built, could diminish or contaminate the aquifer that supports life on the South Rim. Photo: Pete McBride

Backcountry explorer Rich Rudow (at left) and the author eat dinner beside a spring in Olo Canyon, one of the Grand Canyon’s numerous tributaries. Similar oases could be damaged by proposed developments near the park, which, if built, could diminish or contaminate the aquifer that supports life on the South Rim. Photo: Pete McBride

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